John’s prologue is actually a poem that introduces major themes that will be developed in the unfolding of the story that follows. It is a beautiful poem about the mystery of incarnation.
I love the story about two mischievous boys, Tommy the oldest, Jimmy his little brother. One summer the two boys became quite popular in their community, but not in a good way. Families were waking up to lawns covered in toilet paper. One lady who liked to hang up her laundry to dry found a dead rat hanging next to one of her clean sheets. Something had to be done. So a few members of the community went to the pastor of the church where the boys and their parents attended; the pastor also lived in the neighborhood. “Pastor,” they said, “would you have a talk with the boys.” He reluctantly agreed.
A couple of days later he looked out his living room window and saw Tommy, the oldest, walking up the street. He stepped out of his front door and motioned for Tommy to come inside. Since this was his pastor and he trusted him, he conceded though he was certainly curious why the pastor wanted to talk to him. The Pastor decided to initiate the conversation with a probing question. So he asked, “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy made no response. The pastor asked again . . . again no response. Then a third time with emphasis . . . Tommy raced out the door, down the street, into his house, zipping past his little brother, into his room, and slammed the door. Jimmy had never seen his brother in such a state and decided to see what was going on.
Inside his brother’s room, he noticed the closet door slightly ajar – closed but not all the way. He crept over and just as he started to open it wider, a hand reached out and plucked him out of the air, “Quick, Jimmy, get in here. God is missing and they’re blaming us for it!”
Let me ask you that question: Where is God? If you were having a religious conversation over coffee and someone asked you that question how would you respond? This poem, I think, has something profound to say about that.
This poem does not say that Jesus existed in the beginning with God. It says that the Word – the Greek word here is Logos – existed in the beginning with God. Jesus Is not introduced until verse 14 and is not named until verse 17.
So what did John mean by the Logos? Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish literature most likely would have understood this image in three ways. One, they would have connected the Logos to the creative word in Genesis one where God speaks creation into existence. Two, they would likely have made a connection with the revelatory word of the prophets who often claimed to deliver a revealing word of the Lord. And three, they would have identified the Logos with Divine Wisdom.
In ancient Jewish literature and in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) Divine Wisdom was sometimes personified (symbolized) as a woman who, among other things, was God’s partner and helper in creation. For example, in the book of Proverbs the Divine Wisdom is symbolized (personified) as a woman who “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” to offer instruction (Prov. 2:22f). This is what interpreters are referring to when they use the term “Sophia” as a translation for this feminine personification of divine wisdom.
In Proverbs 8 “Sophia”/Lady Wisdom is present when God creates the heavens and the earth. Sophia says: “When God established the heavens I was there . . . when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limits . . . when he marked the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” This sounds very similar to the poetic language employed in John’s prologue doesn’t it?
So then, according to John, the Logos – the creative, revelatory word of Divine Wisdom becomes incarnate – embodied in flesh and blood – in Jesus of Nazareth. John says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Jesus is named in verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
So Jesus, as the Logos incarnate, becomes the model, the archetype who incarnates through his body and soul, through his words and deeds, the creative, transforming wisdom of God. This is why we Christians can talk about Jesus being the face of God (not literally of course, but symbolically), because Jesus reveals the character and nature of God – Jesus shows us what God is like.
This beautiful poem is the interpretative key to the rest of the Gospel of John. For example, in John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” In light of the prologue, John 14:6 does not mean that one has to believe certain things about Jesus in order to know God. What it means is that one has to give oneself to the things that Jesus embodied in order to know God. One must give oneself to the grace and truth and love Jesus embodied/incarnated in order to know God. To love selflessly and sacrificially the way Jesus loved is to know God, regardless of what one actually believes about Jesus.
To believe in Jesus in John’s Gospel is not about believing doctrines or propositional statements about Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the grace and truth and love of God which Jesus revealed, expressed, and incarnated as the Logos, the living Word. True religion is not about believing doctrines; it’s about falling in love with God and learning how to love everyone and everything the way Gods loves everyone and everything. That’s true faith and true religion. And we Christians are not going to help the cause of God in the world until we get that right – namely, that God wants us to do the right things (like loving our neighbor as our self) much more than God cares about our believing the right things.
John says in verses 4-5 that the Logos “was the light of all people” and it “shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” – it shines not only in the world in the person of Jesus, it shines in the darkness of our own hearts and souls. This “true light” says John in verse 9 “enlightens everyone.” This is why, as John says in verse 12, we have the power to become children of God. Each one of us has residing in us the Life, Power, and Wisdom of God that can empower us to live as God’s daughters and sons in the world. The very life, power, and wisdom of God abides in you and me.
Why did we need the particular incarnation of the life, wisdom, and power of God in the person of Jesus, if this life, wisdom, and power is available to all of us? Because we needed to see this lived out in flesh and blood. We needed a model, an example, a visible and tangible representation and mediator of this Divine Life lived out among us, and so “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”
I believe that the uniqueness of Jesus’ incarnation is unique only in terms of degree. What you believe about Jesus in terms of his divinity is irrelevant. How you incarnate the Life that found expression in Jesus is what matters. The incarnation of God in Jesus is the incarnation God wants to see in all of God’s children.
This is what John means, by the way, when he talks about possessing “eternal life” or simply “life.” To possess eternal life is to allow the life of God, the Logos of God, the transforming power, the self-revealing character, and the paradoxical wisdom of God to find a home in us, to creatively dwell and be embodied in our lives and relationships. That’s what it means to possess “life.”
In John 10 Jesus is attacked by the religious leaders for “making himself God.” They want to stone him. In response Jesus doesn’t deny the claim nor does he defend it. He invites them into the same unitive experience he enjoyed by quoting Psalm 82:6. The text reads in John 10:34-36:
Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? [He is quoting the Psalmist who described human beings as gods] If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – [Jesus accepts the Psalmist’s depiction of human beings as “gods”; Jesus accepts that in some sense this is true] can you say that the one whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”
Jesus is arguing: If scripture says that human beings are gods, then why are you upset with me because I said I am God’s Son? Jesus is basically arguing that the divine union he experienced with God is God’s intent and design for every human being. He invites them to believe that he is in the Father and the Father is in him and this union with the Divine is true of them as well, they just have to claim it and live in the reality of it. As a result of this interchange the Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus. And basically this is how the structures and systems of Christendom have reacted to this message both in the past and the present.
The power structures of religion (this is true of Christianity as well as any other religion) would rather have doctrines to believe, rituals to perform, and policies to enforce, rather than actual union with God. Because actual union with God would mean letting go of our incessant need to control and label and judge and create “in” groups and “out” groups. To be in union with God is to allow the Love of God to fill and overflow in our lives. Being in union with God means allowing the light of God’s grace and truth to expose our dark, hidden parts. It means letting go of our egoism and pride and our false attachments to power, prominence, and possessions. Union with Divine Love means change and who wants to do that?
So let me end where I started. Where is God? Is God up there somewhere in the great Beyond? No, sisters and brothers. The great Beyond is Within. If one of the goals (if not the goal) of Christian spirituality is to be like Jesus, then union with God the way Jesus experienced union with God is not some empty wish upon a star; it really is a human possibility. Sisters and brothers, we are both children of heaven and children of earth, flesh and spirit, divine and human. We are a living paradox, just as Jesus was. Don’t go looking for God up there, look for God in here and let the transforming power, will, and wisdom of God become incarnate in you.
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Our good God, it seems too good to be true, that you have taken on human nature, not just in the one we call Messiah and Lord, but in our very hearts, minds, and souls – that your Spirit infuses our spirit. Give us the faith to believe it and claim it. Show us how to be in tune with you, to allow your love and truth and grace to shine forth, to materialize in our bodies, in our work and play, in the way we react and relate to one another, in the habits we develop and in our attitudes and motivations. May the living Word, your transforming power, your self-revealing nature, and your wisdom, find expression in and through our bodies and souls. Amen.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the Unfundamentalist Christians blog at Patheos.